If and how the Old Boys Network has eventually expanded and exceeded earlier theories and practices of cyberfeminism, however, still requires an in-depth investigation. With our refusal to work on a single general definition of cyberfeminism came the proliferation of many individual approaches, some referring to earlier theories, others writing new theories or inventing new forms of theory and practice. The scope of the contributions was wide and included, for instance, the inescapable identity and body politics as well as issues of representation in cyberspace, but also feminist history, the setting-up of safe spaces such as mailing lists, dinner parties, workshops, digital civil rights, privacy, and security issues, free software, immaterial labor, working conditions in the hardware sector, the implications of the military medical complex, hacking as methodology, artistic espionage, artistic uses and abuses of data such as DJing, remixing, and sampling, conflicts over intellectual property, and the realpolitik of gender equality policies in IT industry and games culture. Last but not least, it included the creation of the cyberfeminist network itself.
Working with the Old Boys Network was an overwhelming experience. There was an atmosphere of departure, and we were right in the middle of it. What digital network technologies would bring to the world, how they would change our daily lives, how they would expand our access to information and communication while, at the same time, become the means of unforeseen control and exploitation was pure speculation at the time. It certainly was exciting to get involved at such an early state.
Being in the World with Others
By creating spaces and situations in which diverse approaches could be connected and discussed, OBN provided the stage and the framing context using the proclaimed ambiguity of the term cyberfeminism as a starting point for experimentation. Along these lines, our network could simply be understood as a form of organization, a form of getting organized, or a way to self-organize within or in parallel to traditionally hierarchical systems of academia and the art world. Verena Kuni pointed to this aspect, discussing the emerging opportunities that new technologies offer for “feminist networking” in a male-dominated art world. Her deliberations are largely geared towards career opportunities in this context—something that should become one of the central aspects of all gender and technology activities in the context of liberal feminism. The name Old Boys Network actually invites such an understanding. Referring to the informal system of mutual support—typical within male white elites—it parodies this influential form of invisible power structures without necessarily excluding to aim for a similar form of mutual support. I do not want to deny the relevance of such an approach, although, in my understanding, much more was at stake.
Manuel Castells has suggested the term “networked individualism” for an evolving social pattern that allowed individuals to form “virtual communities, online and offline,” on the basis of their interests, values, affinities, and projects. What this term tries to grasp is more than just a way of getting organized. It is about dissolving the old dichotomy between the individual and the collective/community in order to bring about more than just a collection of isolated individuals: a new form of being in the world with others. An essential feature for this cultural shift to happen is, according to Castells, the technological infrastructure on which it is based: the internet. Although, like the techno-determinist claims of Plant and others, Castells’ new forms of sociability are directly derived from what is described as an essentially positive technological development, they have opened up a new space for thinking about collective agency.
With his different notion of the “networked individual,” Kristóf Nyíri even goes a step further and speaks of a new type of personality emerging in networks: “[t]he network individual is the person reintegrated, after centuries of relative isolation induced by the printing press, into the collective thinking of society— the individual whose mind is manifestly mediated, once again, by the minds of those forming his/her smaller or larger community” (online). In contrast to the concepts of networked individualism as elaborated by Castells and others, networking in Nyíri’s sense means far more than spawning new forms of sociability; it deeply affects concepts of subjectivity and thus collective agency.
It is not surprising that networks as a site and networking as an activity became popular with feminists. The promises contained in these paradigms met the feminist criticism of the male individual as the origin of subjectivity. It was part of the excitement in and around OBN that we had the opportunity to experiment with such emerging forms—not just in and through our individual expressions, but also in the way we were connected. Haraway’s cyborg had provided the inspiration for this new condition of being in the world as interconnected subjectivities. This is probably the reason why it is so difficult to understand OBN from a present-day perspective. The website is an archive that contains documentation of a lot of our activities, but it can hardly communicate this spirit of being networked. Trying to explore the nature of OBN and assessing its political impact would require thorough social science research that involves more than reading the texts and looking at the pictures published on the website—and more than just one perspective. In any case, the time OBN was operative was a period of collective feminist agency for which we provided the underlying structure.
Together with many other groups and initiatives, OBN belonged to the context of 1990s net culture. In small niches for which the critical confrontation with then-new technologies was characteristic, ideas such as Netzkritik (net criticism), tactical media, net art, and hacktivism were contrived and tested, and together formed a disparate yet networked environment that in no small part was inspired by hacker culture.
Next Stop after Utopia
In the decade after the end of OBN, the notion of “digital culture” as a subculture and domain of experts has shifted to become the general societal condition. Not only do digitally networked media influence essentially all areas of life, the operational logic of networked communication inscribes itself continually and ever more deeply into all aspects of social organization and human experience, which gives rise to endless social science and cultural theory research. What had an ultimately shocking effect within these larger social upheavals were the revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013. Deleuze’s notion of the “control society,” which has haunted net culture since the early days, eventually pressed its way to the fore, as was made apparent by Snowden. It has become hard to deny that the very technology that was reason to dream of new forms of political empowerment has turned out to be the means of comprehensive corporate and governmental surveillance and control—for everybody. The network and the networked individual, once the embodiments of new forms of resistance, now have become the basis for new forms of exploitation and oppression.
It was Rosie Braidotti who, as early as 1996, spoiled the party when she wrote that the large scale of the digitization of society would mainly lead to an increasing “gender gap”: “All the talk of a brand new telematic world masks the ever-increasing polarisation of resources and means, in which women are the main losers. There is strong indication therefore, that the shifting of conventional boundaries between the sexes and the proliferation of all kinds of differences through the new technologies will not be nearly as liberating as the cyber-artists and internet addicts would want us to believe.” Braidotti’s theory was not dismissive of cyberfeminism in general; she rather included materialist and socio-economic aspects and, therefore, has arrived closer to contemporary reality with her speculation.
A reality check of gender and technology today does not give any reason for optimism. As various overviews and studies have shown, non-whites/non-males/non-heterosexuals are still largely excluded from the creation of the very technology that shapes us and our ways of interacting with the world. And self-proclaimed technical undergrounds such as FLOSS (Free Libre Open Source Software), the hacker scene, or hacktivist cultures provide an even more shocking scenario.
Having arrived in the twenty-first century, one has to ask what has happened to cyberfeminism and other techno-feminist aspirations. It is needless to say that in the light of recent developments, they appear naïve at best. The phallic power of Big Daddy Mainframe not only rules supreme, it is ever expanding. It is my contention that, in order to deal with current challenges from a feminist perspective, it is indispensable to revisit and critically assess 1990s cyberfeminisms in their complexity. We need to understand which aspects were specific to the times they were conceived, and which aspects still have the potential to provide valid references for contemporary thinking. More than ever, there is the need for techno-feminist theory and practice, and it has to learn from the past instead of just indulging in nostalgia—or defying it.
As Wajcman and other techno-feminist theoreticians have pointed out, technology is a social construction—a culture—in itself and therefore can become subject to transformation. Technology may be a system that generates power—thus reinforcing hierarchical categories such as gender, race and class—but not in a determinist way. “Instead of treating artefacts as something neutral or value-free, social relations are materialized in tools and techniques,” which allows for the reverse. Only more inclusive and diverse techno cultures hold the potential for the transformation of technology. This shift in perspective allows for the social dynamics around technology to change and has offered a new space for interventions.
Critical and gender-aware techno-cultures take this as a starting point: the creation of diversity by taking into account the social realities of non-whites/non-males/non-heterosexuals in the use and development of technology. As elaborated elsewhere, intersectional techno-feminist activities exist, but the field is widely spread. Understanding technology as a gendering as well as gendered space asks for destabilizing conventional gender differences through questioning and reshaping technology itself. This is what also has been called a “(re)politization of the use, design and development of technology for feminist and social justice purposes” by the organizers of the TransHackFeminist Event in 2014 in Spain. This loose context that is organized through different mailing lists promotes and practices various tactics and strategies, ranging from queer-trans-feminist hacker spaces to hack-a-thons and crypto parties, and has also collectively authored an extremely comprehensive manual that brings together the expertise of a diverse community of activists from around the world. The authors provide detailed technical knowledge, but also stress the importance of political consciousness raising, collective action, and solidarity. Core strategies that are discussed and applied are the formulation and implementation of codes of conduct for mixed environments, and the establishment of safe spaces. The manual furthermore includes various privacy and security issues with aspects such as assessing one’s digital traces, creating and managing multiple online identities, assuring anonymous connections and online communication, creating tools and platforms for collaboration, safe handling of data, and advice on how to deal with trolls, all in order to regain control, at least to a certain degree, over the technologies we use on a daily basis. Without a doubt, the practices described in the manual are the essentials of technical empowerment, but it also becomes clear, that the problems—of gender inequality as well as surveillance and control —cannot be solved through technical measures alone. Just as gender equality cannot be forged at the click of the mouse, as some early techno-feminists envisioned, the use of crypto tools will not be the solution to secure mass communication; firstly, the business models of mass communication, to a large degree, depend on collecting private data and will remain so, and secondly, the use of encryption still requires expert knowledge which is not easily available for all. While the manual is a great example of techno-feminist sharing of knowledge, the techniques included hardly go beyond the notion of digital self-defense; it shows some strategies to fight back, but also illustrates a lack of utopian ideas.
Unlike in the 1990s, when cyberfeminism provided a strong reference term for the diverse techno-feminist approaches of the time, the field today is more fragmented and confusing. The above mentioned TransHackFeminist context, for example, is a largely activist context, active also in the global South. There are few connections from this activist community to the art world or to cultural/political theorists, which is why their rather ambitious and differentiated concerns are not communicated to a larger audience. Although theoretically inclusive, the field appears to be confined to a subculture.
The cyberfeminist succession in the art world is mainly concerned with the representational surfaces of the WWW, social media, and games culture and avoids tackling the complexities of gender and technology politics—not to speak of a critical confrontation with the extremely hierarchical and patriarchal art world. And while the notion of post-gender once was a promising attraction, the signs point that old gender stereotypes are being reinforced. The cyborg fever is over and with it the dreams of transcending the body to become post-human. What once provoked liberating fantasies about the relationship of technology and subjective sensitivities, about autonomy and heteronomy, has degenerated into a symbol for the assimilation of former counter-cultures by the unholy alliance of capital and techno-science. The state of being “networked” has lost its fascination for the “dividual individuals” of the control society, who instead busy themselves inventing escape strategies.
The question arises as to what level a new techno-feminist agenda can be conceived that takes into account radical, queer, trans, feminist, and techno activisms, as one example of specific agency, while at the same time making use of the resources and capacities offered by theory and art practice. The Xenofeminist group Laboria Cuboniks, a collective that emerged in 2014, asks exactly for such an emancipatory politics that would connect localized politics of immediacy to a kind of scalable theory able to confront abstract global systems of injustice: “[t]ransiting between such scales—between the concrete here and now, and the untouchable, yet thinkable abstract—is a requirement for 21st century emancipatory politics, involving an expanded conception of ‘specificity’, ‘particularity’ and ‘situatedness.
So far, however, Xenofeminism remains “the call for” such a novel theory.
This takes me back to the introductory statement by Donna Haraway quoted at the start of this text, in which she invites her readers to “find an elsewhere,” an imagined future from which we can rethink the present. What do we see in our present that we do not like, that we cannot live with, that needs to change? What would it look like in an ideal future society/world? This move to utopian thinking brings us close to fiction and science fiction, a genre that has long been popular with feminists for good reason. Rethinking gender relations is certainly the most important aspect of feminist science fiction, but I believe that contemporary techno-feminist utopias have to open up and include a rethinking of technology in terms of its dependency on capitalist logic. Questioning gender and technology paradigms cannot take place without seriously questioning capitalist principles of growth and exploitation. This is where techno-feminism has to meet other social movements. Utopia will be there as long as we are searching for it – together. Let’s chase away the libertarian ghosts of Silicon Valley who don’t know anything but greed and competition.
What are “our” images of desire? What are “our” codes for hope? Why not reactivating the cyberfeminist expertise on the future? Only by drafting our visions can we go beyond the contradictions produced within society and get closer to what neither theory nor practice have realized yet. The most important tool for forming an opposition to existing structures will not be the use of advanced crypto-technology, but rather the use of imagination.
This text is dedicated to my long-standing cyberfeminist fellow combatant and friend Nathalie Magnan, who passed away in October 2016. We will never forget her!
Vol. 60, No. 1/2, The Sociological Tradition of Hungarian Philosophy (New York: Springer, 2005), 149-158.
Although it was part of the critical net cultures’ self-understanding to deconstruct technology on the basis of their social and political implications, it was reserved for the ‘xxperts’ to address gender-related issues. The role of cyberfeminism and other techno-feminisms within these subcultures is another issue worth exploring and would make a text in itself.
Exact figures are not available for the hacker and hacktivist scene for obvious reasons. In free software development recent overviews show different figures ranging from two percent to eleven percent females in the workforce. See also: floss2013.libresoft.es/results.en.html (Accessed April 27, 2016).
Examples of recent, rather uncritical reviews of cyberfeminism can be found in: Sonja Peteranderl, “Die Pionierinnen des Cyberfeminismus sagen den Tech-Cowboys den Kampf an,“ WIRED Germany, June 2, 2015, ; Claire L. Evans, “We are the Future Cunt: Cyberfeminism in the 90s,” Motherboard, November 20, 2014, http://motherboard.vice.com/read/we-are-the-futue-cunt-cyberfeminism-in-the-90s. Others improperly reduce cyberfeminism in an attempt to deny its relevance altogether, such as in Armen Avanessian, dea ex machine (Berlin: merve, 2015).
The manual is available in English and Spanish and has been produced and published through Tactical Tech Collective, (Berlin: 2015). Available online at: https://gendersec.tacticaltech.org/wiki/index.php/Complete_manual#Introduction (accessed 23 August 2016).
The concept of “safe space” is elaborated here: GeekFeminismWiki, geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Safe_space (accessed 23 August 2016).
A good example seems to be the new desire for authenticity as acted out, for instance, by the girls “crying on camera,” as written about in: Sara Burke, “Crying on Camera: ‘fourth-wave feminism’ and the threat of commodification,” UX: Art+Tech, SFMoMA, May 17, 2016, openspace.sfmoma.org/2016/05/crying-on-camera-fourth-wave-feminism-and-the-threat-of-commodification/
Laboria Cuboniks, Xenofeminism—A Politics for Alienation, 2014, www.laboriacuboniks.net (accessed 23 August 2016).